Stefi and I went to Florence on Saturday to visit our daughter, who’s in the first year of ‘medicina’ and has recently moved into an apartment with two other girls.
It was the first time I’d been to ‘Firenze’ (other than for a business meeting) since she showed me around when we were ‘courting’, as my granny would have said, way back in 1997.
These days there are high-speed trains from Bologna – the cost is modest, and the train from east to west across the ‘Appenini‘ (actually it mostly goes under…) doesn’t take much longer than half an hour.
Our daughter’s place was walking distance from the central train station, so we went there first to check out her lodgings and the two friendly flatmates, one of whom had put together a list of places we could consider lunching at, based on our budget and appetites.
So we retraced our steps back past the Fascist-era central station, then on through streets increasingly packed with tourists, past the striking (because of its size and color) ‘duomo di Firenze’, finally to the recommended eatery, which boasted a street-facing window hung with sides of beef ready to be carved into the famous (or infamous, if you’re a vegetarian or the least bit climate-concerned) Fiorentine.
But huge-great steaks weren’t on our itinerary. My wife, who once had a boyfriend who studied at the university where our younger daughter now is, had in mind to renew her acquaintance with a much more humble dish, ‘La pappa al pomodoro’, which said boyfriend’s mother used to prepare, back in the day.
The menu offered ‘un tris di zuppe toscane’, which seemed like a good choice.
A ‘bis’ in Italian is basically two or both of something, two goals in a soccer match, say. Or if you decide to have lasagne AND tortellini.
By extension, a ‘tris’ is three of, or all three.
The other dishes, besides ‘la pappa al pomodoro’, were ‘minestrone di verdure’ and the famous ‘ribollita’.
I readily agreed with my wife’s choice and ordered the same, especially as the ‘tris’ was priced at about a thousandth of what a ‘fiorentina’ would have set me back.
I suppose I could have taken out a loan, but Greta and so on, so peasant food it was to be.
A little further down this article, I’ll link to recipes for all three dishes, which I found while checking whether ‘ribollita’ really does mean what it sounds like it means.
GialloZafferano (yellow saffron), one of Italy’s best-known cooking websites, has this to say:
“Le origine di questa pietanza risalgono al medioevo quando i nobili erano soliti consumare le loro pietanze dentro a dei pani detti “mense”. Una volta terminato il pranzo, il pane avanzato veniva dato ai servi, che per sfamarsi lo univano alle loro povere verdure e lo facevano bollire, ottenendo una zuppa sostanziosa e saporita, una vera e propria antenata della ribollita!”
Which basically means that the dish goes back to the middle-ages when nobles would get their food brought to them (wrapped?) in bread – sounds a bit like a kebab to me.
And being nobles, and so able to afford ample quantities of nice meats and so on, they had no need to fill themselves up with the actual bread, which was given to (or stolen by, more likely) the servants (‘avanzi’ are ‘leftovers’).
Who then gratefully combined their yummy crusts with the ‘poor vegetables’ that they’d managed to scratch up somewhere and boiled the whole mess to produce a tasty and filling soup, the ancestor of today’s ‘reboiled’!
I like Italian food, really I do. But I dislike the way that Italians are, to a man or woman, convinced that their cuisine is the best in the world and clearly the only thing worth eating (with a recent exception being made for sushi…)
There’s great variety (pasta comes in different shapes, which matters apparently). And usually the ingredients are good and the cooking-processes time-tested so, one would assume, healthy.
But let’s face it, it should be possible to temper one’s pride in a dish of cheap vegetables boiled with leftover bread with the admission that the result is, yes, traditional, but no, admittedly not quite up there with the best the French, the Chinese, or whoever are able to come up with.
GialloZafferano describes ‘ribollita’ further as ‘un piatto che non conosce fretta ma che vi ripagherà dell’attesa’, by which I presume they mean that to get any sort of edible result takes a lot of fussing around.
Their recipe is rated as ‘Difficoltà: Media‘ with a preparation time of 35 mins and a cooking time of 120 mins. Wow, just the thing for famished servants!
Giallo Zafferano’s recipe for ‘ribollita’ has THIRTY STEPS, which is nonsense of course, and confirms my view that most of their recipes are fussy to the nth degree.
While modern Italians might go for pickiness like this, sure as eggs are eggs, for their ‘antenati’, the servants of the rich in medieval Florence, it would have been a question of chucking whatever they could beg or steal in one pot and eating the result as soon as it was hot, before collapsing exhausted on the flagstones to grab a few hours of rest before the breakfast shift.
This is cooking as fetishism, complexity for the sake of it. And yes, it’s warm and nourishing but so is porridge.
Back in the restaurant, the cheapest bottle of wine on the menu would have cost more than our two trises, and the magic words ‘1 litro vino della casa’ were nowhere to be seen.
But Stefi, having seen my face, and acknowleding that I’d been well-behaved so far, asked the waiter directly to bring us a liter carafe of red, which, after a considerable wait, he did.
A couple of glasses of wine later, I was mellow enough not to be outraged at having been charged nine euros for a few handfulls of vegetable mush. What the hell, I thought, at least I hadn’t paid ‘un occhio’ (‘an arm and a leg’) for a ‘fiorentina’.
After lunch, Daughter Two took us to a public library that she wanted to check out, with a view to studying there on Sundays, when the university library is closed.
La biblioteca delle Oblate, just a few steps from the Duomo, is a three-storey former convent with views over the roofs of surrounding buildings. Climb to the top floor – it’s a terrific place from which to see the dome of the Duomo rising above the city. It also has a cafè.
But that’s not the reason I mention La biblioteca delle Oblate… As I told you, it’s a popular place for students to spread out their books or open their laptops and log into the free wifi. The place was full of them, from the ground floor up to the rooftop terrace, and there were picnic tables and plastic chairs clearly intended for their use.
But get this – the students, at their picnic tables, were studying OUTSIDE! On a Saturday in December, with the temperature such that, even with my guts full of warming peasant food and having trudged for kilometers, I was chilly.
Goodness knows what it must be like to spend an entire December day outside, annotating photocopies with colored highlighting pens or tapping away at an essay on a laptop. Perhaps it’s a tradition from the middle ages, I don’t know. In Bologna, which boasts Europe’s oldest university, we let our students come indoors sometimes.
Così. That was Firenze.
Actually not. We also went to the Mercato Centrale, hoping to find somewhere warm to sit for a couple of hours. But I don’t recommed it – they charge €3 for a teabag and a pot of hot water, and the temperature was lower inside than out, I swear.
The train back east was warm and comfy, though, and once back in Bologna, we didn’t have to wait long for the bus to take us home (Greta! Public transport, see? We’re listening!)
Talking of Bologna, I must just mention that this week our Italian school has its ‘Save 20% on Italian Courses in 2020‘ offer, details of which are here.
Tea costs even more in Bologna, I’m told.
But it’s a lot less crowded.
And the Bolognese really DO know how to eat!